Mystery Worshipper: Wes Charles
Church: St Mary's Abbey
Location: West Malling, Kent, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 1 October 2011, 12:00am
Malling Abbey was founded in 1090 and passed into secular ownership after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. It was restored to its original purpose in the late 19th century. The buildings range from very old ruins to a very modern chapel, built, I would guess, about 40 years ago. There are beautiful gardens with numerous fruit trees and flowers.
The Benedictines are a contemplative order, giving their lives over to prayer. The abbey guest house welcomes individuals and groups for retreats, quiet days, and special events. The nuns employ local people to work in the gardens and help with jobs.
West Malling is an historic market town in Kent that features a bustling high-street. It is reputed to be the site of the first recorded cricket match in Kent. Nearby are hop farms, vineyards, and several historic buildings. The area is popular with tourists. In 1967, The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour was filmed around West Malling.
The priest who officiated was named Barbara (sorry, I didn't get a surname). She had come in for the day to lead a communion service.
What was the name of the service?The service didn't have a name - it was a special service put on for visitors at an abbey Quiet Day.
How full was the building?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The congregation and priest all arrived at the same time and the service started immediately.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a wooden chair that was adequate for the 20-minute service. I wouldn't have wanted to sit there for an hour, though.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service in this context extends to the six hours of Quiet Day. We arrived shortly after 9.00 and there was a strict No Speaking rule. There were books available. We'd spent the day enjoying the gardens in silence (it was a lovely day, quite warm) and reading religious books. I had a little sleep on the grass, and Mrs Charles had her sketchbook and charcoals to keep her occupied (see below). The service was the first time we'd been allowed to speak all day!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a communion service sheet, nothing else.
What musical instruments were played?
There was no instrument there, which was fortunate as this was a said service.
Did anything distract you?
Yes. The service took place in the Pilgrims' Chapel by the entrance, which was a very old and very small building. I couldn't help thinking of the generations of pilgrims who would have worshipped there on their way to Canterbury over hundreds of years, and the role the abbey would have played in the town.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a standard Anglican service, conducted in a reverent manner.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The deeply spiritual aspect of the whole day. The service was a beautiful end to a day that had included observing some of the nuns' offices during the day, reading my William Tindale Bible, and relaxing in beautiful gardens in the middle of a bustling provincial town.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Despite the traditional way of life the nuns lead, it was hard not to be irritated by the noise and occasional diesel smell coming from the industrial gardening machinery they were using at times during the day.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This was the end of the Quiet Day. We left in silence.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We made coffee ourselves in their little kitchen, and one of the nuns brought in a beautiful apple cake made from the plentiful supply of apples from the gardens. It was delicious!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – It was nice, but not really practical to make this my regular church. I wouldn't be able to keep quiet for long enough!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. This was a very enjoyable day and one that I would like to repeat in the future.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The peace, tranquillity, and feeling of closeness to God.